September 12, 2010

Honoring victims, heroes of 9/11

Protests and calls for unity are heard, but the focus is on those lost in the terror attacks.

By BETH FOUHY and VERENA DOBNIK The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Rites of remembrance and loss marked the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, familiar in their sorrow but observed for the first time Saturday in a nation torn over the prospect of a mosque near ground zero and the role of Islam in society.

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Mourners weep during a memorial service on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks Saturday in New York City. Commemorations also were held at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and in Shanksville, Pa.

The Associated Press

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Anna Sereno of Brooklyn, N.Y., holds a photo of her son, Arturo Angelo Sereno, as friends and relatives of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks gather on Saturday for a remembrance ceremony at Zuccotti Park, adjacent to ground zero in New York.

The Associated Press

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Under a flawless blue sky that called to mind the day itself, there were tears and song, chants and the waving of hundreds of American flags. Loved ones recited the names of the victims, as they have each year since the attacks. They looked up to add personal messages to the lost and down to place flowers in a reflecting pool in their honor.

For a few hours Saturday morning, the political and cultural furor over whether a proposed Islamic center and mosque belongs two blocks from the World Trade Center site mostly gave way to the somber anniversary ceremony and pleas from elected officials for religious tolerance.

But this Sept. 11 was unmistakably different from the eight that came before it, and not only because a new World Trade Center is finally ready to rise. As they finished reading names, two relatives of 9/11 victims issued pleas -- one to God and one to New York -- that the site remain "sacred."

And within hours of the city's memorial service near ground zero, groups of protesters had taken up positions in lower Manhattan, blocks apart and representing both sides of the debate over the mosque, which has suffused the nation's politics for weeks leading up to the anniversary.

Near City Hall, supporters of the mosque toted signs that read, "The attack on Islam is racism" and "Tea party bigots funded by corporate $." Opponents carried placards that read, "It stops here" and "Never forgive, never forget, no WTC mosque."

At the other Sept. 11 attack sites, as at ground zero, elected leaders sought to remind Americans of the acts of heroism that marked a Tuesday in 2001 and the national show of unity that followed.

President Obama, appealing to an unsettled nation from the Pentagon, declared that the United States could not "sacrifice the liberties we cherish or hunker down behind walls of suspicion and mistrust."

"As Americans we are not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam," the president said. "It was not a religion that attacked us that September day -- it was al-Qaida, a sorry band of men which perverts religion."

In Shanksville, Pa., first lady Michelle Obama and her predecessor, Laura Bush, spoke at a public event together for the first time since last year's presidential inauguration. At the rural field where the 40 passengers and crew of United Flight 93 lost their lives, Obama said "a scar in the earth has healed," and Bush said "Americans have no division" on this day.

In New York, the leader of a small Christian congregation in Florida who had planned to burn copies of the Quran to mark the Sept. 11 anniversary called off his plans.

Pastor Terry Jones gave an interview to NBC's "Today" after flying to New York in hopes of meeting with leaders of the mosque and persuading them to move the Islamic center in exchange for his canceling the burning. No meeting had taken place, he said.

Nonetheless, "We feel that God is telling us to stop," he said. "Not today, not ever. We're not going to go back and do it. It is totally canceled."

Jones' plan had drawn opposition across the political spectrum and the world. Obama had appealed to him on television, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a personal phone call, not to burn the Islamic holy book. Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, said carrying out the plan would have endangered American troops.

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